gwyn and jake

David Auburn’s fine and witty Proof won both a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2001 as well as the Tony for Best Play; the new movie version, directed by John Madden and starring Gwyneth Paltrow, won’t take home awards for anything, unless of course it’s remembered at Razzie time.

Although the film retains much of Auburn’s dialogue, the psychological and emotional energy behind the lines (or between them) has been scrapped. The insurmountable problem: Gwyneth Paltrow cannot act. She shouldn’t have been cast in the role of Catherine, a dowdy, latchkey adult who has lost most of her twenties to caring for a mentally unbalanced, semi-invalid father. Incapable of delivering a funny line (of which the play has many), Paltrow seems inhuman, amateurish. She conveys intense internal distress as if her charge card had been declined at Prada. She gives the other actors nothing to play off, so that the valiant efforts of Jake Gyllenhaal (as her beau) and the great Hope Davis (as her competitive older sister) go down in flames.

Paltrow and her handlers wouldn’t know this, but there’s substantially more involved in playing a weak character than merely flitting pitifully. Mia Farrow, for example, has a genius for inhabiting women who are fragile on the surface, yet incinerate within. Look at Farrow’s work in the masterful Husbands and Wives or even in a trashy picture such as Widow’s Peak. You can see it in her—the strength it takes to stay down. Nobody’s home inside Paltrow. And even if someone were, she would have that terrible, nasal voice to overcome. An Oscar and several millions of dollars later, Paltrow continues to sound like the amplification of a deviated septum or, at the very least, a code in her nose. Her incessant nasality might matter less if Paltrow knew how to shade or to phrase or to modulate her line readings. She doesn’t. She completely lacks any sort of dramatic impetus.

The movie could have been partially saved if Davis and Paltrow had switched roles. Although it’s initially fun to see Davis, cast against type, come on in full yuppie witch regalia—the flawless make-up, the dark business suit with high heels, the corporate coiffure—her attempt at creating the perfect sister we love to hate runs counter to director Madden’s flattening out of Auburn’s snappy confrontations. The play has a few backbiting sisterly jousts that are wonderful to read, particularly the early one in which Claire (the Davis character) insists on treating “Harold Dobbs” (Gyllenhaal) as a figment of depressive, loony Catherine’s lonely imaginings. Madden tends to shoot these verbal spars in close-up: the actors don’t have enough room.

Davis, who was extraordinary in The Daytrippers and American Splendor, would have made an effective Catherine. Although quite beautiful, Davis can identify with the forlorn and the marginalized; better still, she can translate that understanding into a living, breathing persona. She inherently suggests the kind of intelligence to play a mathematician convincingly, and to play a mathematician who has deliberately subjugated her gifts, as Catherine does. Conversely, Paltrow wouldn’t have been too put out in the rich bitch role: she managed to do that fairly well, once before, in The Talented Mr. Ripley, the only performance of hers that I can bear to watch.

Even if the casting were more astute, the film’s lighting, by Alwin Küchler, would remain consistently terrible, and composer Stephen Warbeck’s synthesized electro-drivel would still sound as gratingly line assembled as any score by Hans Zimmer.

hopkins paltrowAnthony Hopkins, in his few scenes as Claire and Catherine’s father, Robert, a once brilliant theorist whose decline into dementia quickly ended a meteoric career as a math whiz, matches Paltrow toe-to-toe for ineptitude. The two of them don’t come across as father and daughter. Fat and cherubic, with white, feathery mid-length hair and silver scraggles scratching at his red jowls, Hopkins seems more like a failed Santa from a tenth-rate department store. It doesn’t help that Robert’s best speech in the play has been entirely cut from the film. In the first scene of the second act, Robert, who in his lucid moments misses academe, muses, “I love Chicago in September. Perfect skies. Sailboats on the water. Cubs losing…” He stops into a campus bookstore and watches the students browse through books: “You see them shuffling around with their backpacks, goofing off, taking up space. You’d call it loitering except once in a while they pick up a book and flip the pages…It’s a honest way to kill an afternoon…not looking for anything, just looking…seeing what somebody threw out, seeing what they underlined…”

It’s a beautiful monologue, and we should have heard it on film. But then we would need Hopkins in his prime (circa 84 Charing Cross Road), a director who trusts the material more than the faith he vests in marketing, and a playwright turned scenarist less willing to compromise.

Finally, a word about Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance as Hal, Robert’s former student, now a 26-year-old math professor at the University of Chicago. Gyllenhaal’s acting is a good deal more self-conscious than it was in the low-key era of Donnie Darko and Lovely and Amazing. He seems awfully aware of himself now, of his protean physical beauty. There’s a moment when Hal, who has stayed up all night solving a math problem, says, “I haven’t slept,” and he’s supposed to look baggy-eyed and disheveled, only with Gyllenhaal in the role, and in a gray, snugly fitting crewneck pullover, with his chestnut, foufy hair piled miraculously high, Hal/Jake looks flawlessly sexy. And yet for that, Gyllenhaal remains an inventively resourceful actor. (He has to be, in a movie this poorly directed.) Even though the camera shoves his physical grace at us, Gyllenhaal has (thus far) held on to integrity in a way that Jude Law hasn’t or can’t. The script does present Gyllenhaal with one unscalable curve: it demands that Hal fall in love with Catherine, and while on the page I found their burgeoning romance believable, in the flesh Gyllenhaal works frantically to generate some sort of chemistry with the evacuated Paltrow. I couldn’t buy it, the supposed attraction between them. Flirting is always a dicey proposition when the boy is so, so much prettier than the girl. – NPT

September 16, 2005